Unlikeable protagonists

In all of our writing training, we’re told how our protagonists have to be likeable. The first thing our reader will notice is our hero! If they don’t like your hero, it’s curtains for your book!

I’m reading a book right now with a hero who is a whiny angry jerk. But I’m sticking with it because I like the story and supporting characters.

It got me thinking about numerous other protagonists I disliked and still read their books. All of Stephen Lawhead’s antihero protagonists are that way. Harry Potter had book 5 where I just wanted to smack him. Twilight has Bella. I don’t think there’s ever been a Ted Dekker book where I liked his protagonist.

But often the supporting characters are awesome. The jerk hero is having an amazing adventure with amazing people. I can put up with his jerk-ness for their sake.

I want to say this is a literary device, but correct me if I’m wrong. Books like Pride and Prejudice start off by showing you the characters’ faults (Mr. Darcy is a BUTT and Lizzy isn’t much better). But then the author starts showing their good qualities, too, and by the end of the book, you love them.

Sometimes that does happen in modern books. When I meet a jerk protagonist, I hope they’ll improve and stick with them. Usually they do become slightly less odious by the end. Sometimes they don’t. But if their supporting cast and adventures are good enough, I don’t mind much.

Have you noticed yourself sticking with a book, not because you like the hero, but because the story is compelling? Who’s the last hero you remember not liking much at the beginning?

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4 thoughts on “Unlikeable protagonists

  1. “Harry Potter had book 5 where I just wanted to smack him.” – Haha I felt like that too. Hmm, I haven’t really thought of any books where I don’t like the lead, but I’m sure there have been some – but the stories are so good it doesn’t matter!

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  2. I can live with jerky characters if I can understand and sympathize with their jerkiness on some level. The MC’s parents were killed, or her best friend committed suicide, and they’re angry or whatever and not dealing well…but then I expect them to start to heal during the book, and that’s when the jerkiness subsides.

    I read a book not long ago where the MC got MORE jerky as the story unfolded. She became reckless and drug-addicted and hateful and selfish, and the end of the book was basically the message that she’s learned to accept herself that way. UGH. NO.

    I’ve also found that in YA the “snarky” voice has become popular, but too many authors don’t know how to do it right and it comes off as jerky.

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    1. Kat: Yeah, snark has to walk that fine line between funny and jerk, and some people take it too far. Mostly the YA MCs I’ve read have been pretty tolerable, even likeable. More so for the MG books. It must be hard to write!

      Meg: It’s hard to think of a book with a lame hero when you liked the rest of the book. It’s like in Green Dolphin Street by Goudge, I just hated Mary Anne. It was like he’d married Miss Minchin. :-p

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  3. I think Frankenstein is probably my top “I hate this main character” book, but he was supposed to be a sympathetic character. But he reacts like an an 18-year-old girl would react to pretty much everything (which makes sense, considering an 18-year-old girl wrote it). But he’s not jerky. He’s just a humongous wuss who refuses to take responsibility for his actions.

    I don’t really feel for the monster either though. He reacts to Frankenstein’s presence extreme violence (he kills Frankenstein’s youngest brother) then has the GALL to ask for Frankenstein to create a female monster so they can be happy together. How can you make those kinds of demands when you just MURDERED?

    I’d also The Great Gatsby is like that. ALL the main characters had completely nonredeemable flaws, and I didn’t feel the slightest bit sorry when they all died in the end. It’s no more than they deserved.

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